Joe Greene was on the jump seat of my Cushman motor scooter that Florida summer afternoon when I drove down the street dividing Jacksonville Beach from Neptune Beach, where we lived. At fifteen we’d become pals. His dad had taken us fishing in their outboard boat, we spent time at each other’s homes with baseball cards, black-and-white TV shows and other diversions, and my second-hand scooter gave us range to explore all the beach towns. Two-gallon tank, fifty plus miles per gallon at twenty-seven cents per for Amoco unleaded; a different world than this. No intimation of lurking violence.
Until this particular day.
We were almost to First Street, closest to the ocean, where I’d turn left and head for home when two or three grungy dirty little grade-school-age kids popped out from behind a hedge and dropped a string of sputtering, exploding firecrackers on my front fender. Scared the crap out of us. I jerked the handlebars and the firecrackers slid off. Momentum carried us right over them as the final few went off. In peripheral vision, the perpetrators were almost rolling on the ground in glee. When we got to First Street, we went from scared to pissed. I turned around and went back, pulled across half-out of the street, and we started yelling at the little punks about fireworks being dangerous.
A car with a loud muffler screeched to a stop. Before I could think, two long-haired guys older than us jumped out screaming my scooter was blocking their way. Shock I guess is what I experienced. Mingled with a nasty little secret thought I deserved their fury for cussing at the firecracker kids.
The stark fear came when one of them pulled a switchblade.
I vaguely remember pushing the scooter up on the sidewalk, Joe still perched and now dead-silent, with a half-formed notion that would appease them and they would leave. There were words. I can’t remember any. Just the raw anger and my fear. Finally one of them said he was going to “arrest” us and turn us over to the cops for blocking the road. Even in my addled brain that made no sense: their rusty old Ford had Georgia license plates, and I knew the local town marshal and his deputy, friends of my grandfather.
They broke it off suddenly and jumped back in their car, saying they were going to turn around and follow us to the police station. The muffler roared and they blasted down to First Street. All I could think was we were only a few blocks from home. Soon as they squealed off, I drove off the sidewalk and back the way we’d come.
My little Cushman’s acceleration was pathetic. About 35 mph was its top end. Looking back as we plodded up to speed I saw them backing and filling on First Street. We were almost to Third Street when I heard the muffler roar as he floored it. They were coming too fast. They’d be on us before we made the street. So I cut the handlebars and drove up the sidewalk. We made about fifty yards before the nose of the Ford broke past the corner house back there.
Fear is a strong motivator. I slammed on the brake and dumped us sideways, Joe letting out a squawk. I’d seen movies where Indian warriors laid their ponies down on the prairie to hide from passing cavalry. Somehow they failed to spot the maneuver, pulling partly into Third, motor revving. Then turned and drove past us. The long drainage-ditch grass hadn’t been cut lately and hid us from view. Joe yanked his leg from under the scooter and wanted to lift up to see what they were doing. I basically tackled him and lay on top of him. His face stands vividly in memory, white as a sheet, every red-headed freckle glaring.
The muffler roared by. They turned down the next cross-street toward the ocean. We could follow them by the sound of the muffler.
They turned south on First and went back to the street we were first on. It sounded as if they were making another pass. I got us up and rolling down the Third Street sidewalk. Across the street they’d gone down, then another block — to the street Joe lived on. They still were out of sight when I turned toward his place. Three houses to go. The muffler was back there, coming on.
We made it to Joe’s front yard. For one moment I felt safe. But his parents’ car was gone. Nobody home. No grownups in surrounding yards. I parked in the driveway close to the exterior steps leading to their garage apartment and shut it down.
Nowhere else to run. And the muffler crisscrossing behind us, street by street. Hunting us.
In the retrospect it was like being pursued by some fearsome beast in a horror movie. Maybe the basis for my lifelong hatred of horror movies. But that’s decades-later thinking. At the time, we were simply paralyzed with fear. And then the muffler was very loud, roaring down Joe’s street toward First.
They were craning their necks, but almost missed us in the driveway. The Ford was past us when the brakes screamed. Then the driver slammed it in gear and raced off. That broke my paralysis. I raced for the stairs and up, two at a time. Nobody ever locked their doors in those days. Surely if they came back they wouldn’t try to follow us inside…
But here came the muffler again. On the landing I glanced back. Joe was rooted to the spot in the driveway. I did not then know the phrase deer-in-headlights look, but he had it. The Ford stood on its nose and they were opening the doors and yelling at him, more angry than before, if possible, screaming curses.
The door wasn’t locked. And there on the hall wall was Joe’s dad’s gun rack. The only firearm I recall is a single-shot .410. I grabbed it off its pegs, bent it open, and searched the drawer for shells. Not a one. There was no time left. Back on the landing, I saw they were closing in on Joe. I saw the switchblade glint. I yelled.
They looked up. I held up the bent-open .410 very ostentatiously, and made a show of closing the breech, cocking the hammer. And that was all she wrote: eyes walled, a scramble back to their car. They left fast as they arrived. The empty gun scared them off.
I gave silent thanks to Robert Young, the actor.
Starring in a remake of Stagecoach,he used his emptied .45 to scare off the final Apache in the climactic scene. The Western-staple drunken doctor had finished his last bottle while besieged. Young had commented his empty Colt was useless as the empty whiskey bottle. No, the sawbones said — an empty gun still carries some authority. And my experience proved it.
Here’s the thing: when I recently told this story to a friend of mine who knows more about Hollywood and movies than seems possible, he said Robert Young never starred in a Stagecoach remake. Not even a made-for-TV production, which is how I remember it. I was flabbergasted, so I looked Young up.
Wikipedia agrees with my friend. Young was a familiar face on TV the year of the .410. Father Knows Best ran 1954–1960. No stagecoaches. His previous movie career included some adventure turns like Secret of the Incas with Charlton Heston, evidently an inspiration for the later Raiders of the Lost Ark. His other movie work was characterized as mostly B-movies, romance, comedy, drama in which he co-starred with a bevy of Hollywood beauties such as Katharine Hepburn, Margaret Sullivan, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Helen Hayes, Hedy Lamarr, Helen Twelvetrees, Loretta Young (no relation) and others. (A wag might suggest the twinkle in Marcus Welby MD’s eye a tribute to all of them. But that’s another story.)
Given my utter frustration about the to-me iconic line about an empty gun retaining authority, my erudite friend mentioned something called The Mandela Effect.
This term has been given wide circulation since coined by paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, a woman who absolutely remembers Nelson Mandela dying in a South African prison in the eighties when recorded history says he did no such thing. She wasn’t the only one.
So the term applies to a memory shared by some but not all. Examples are abundant now. Is it Looney Tunes or Looney Toons? Did Curious George have a tail, or not? The Monopoly Man, Rich Uncle Pennybags, always wore his top hat — and monocle. Didn’t he? Is it Jif or Jiffy Peanut Butter? And on and on.
Far as I know, I’m alone in remembering Robert Young in a remake of Stagecoach. Maybe, just maybe, I invented the memory later to explain my bluffing the hooligans with an empty .410 in 1957 Florida. Making it a false memory?
What causes false memory? Researchers say trauma, depression, or stress may produce false memories. That negative events may produce more false memories than positive or neutral ones. Sometimes we “remember” things that never happened — a reason eyewitness testimonies can mislead. They say this includes both implicit memories, which allow us to carry out physical tasks without thinking about them, and explicit memories of an event we think happened to us.
That long-ago Florida day was certainly full of trauma and stress, not to mention outright terror. But everything as recounted, from firecrackers to empty .410, actually occurred. These are the postscripts:
I called home from Joe’s and my grandfather called Jimmy Jarboe, the colorful town marshal given to broad-brimmed Stetsons and huge Plymouth Furies, whose K-9 partner was a gigantic Great Dane. Jimmy put out an alert. I don’t know which Beaches police force caught them, but Jimmy supplied details: two escapees from a Georgia “reformatory” in a stolen Ford on a joyride through North Florida. They were extradited promptly, all the while complaining I almost shot them. Jimmy was amused about the .410 bluff.
Joe Greene’s dad wasn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t have griped about not finding shells in the gun rack. He got all up on his high horse about how dare I touch his shotgun with no adult at home. Never mind Joe might have been a goner if I didn’t act. He never took me fishing again. And Joe never went anywhere with me on my motor scooter again. By parental mandate or personal choice I never knew.
Which leaves Robert Young in Stagecoach unexplained. I have a vague recollection of a TV interview in which Young said he took the role after being typecast in Bringing Up Father. To prove he still could play a tough guy, as he sometimes did in those B movies before television.